The lone scientist in the Caribbean
January 23, 2009 6:59 AM   Subscribe

So, it's me, mom and dad, sister and her ex-Marine husband, handsome football player cousin and his fiancee, and my southern aunt and uncle. Together. On a boat. For a week. Oh god.

Ok, I'll admit it: I'm basically a hippie. While I would probably not ever go on a cruise as my first choice for a vacation, I am also not one to quibble with a free vacation - Dad wants to have one last family vacation before we all go our separate ways, and he loves going on cruises.

While I do not consider myself to be the black sheep of the family, I am probably the oddball, and besides all that, I see the married folk buddying up. I also tend not to enjoy 'tourist-y' things - mom, sister and aunt are all confirmed shoppers. Dad, uncle, brother-in-law, all confirmed party dudes. (I love all of these people, btw, and none of these comments should be read as judgments on their characters - these are simply facts, and I know how internet-folk tend to love jumping on the 'Stop being such a judgmental snobby pants!' and so on.)

So, the question: what can an overeducated 25 year old snobby pants lady do to make the most of the cruise? Our itinerary is: Ochos Rios, Jamaica; Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; and Cozumel, Mexico. I like: birds, I'm an anthropologist-in-training, I do not like to shop, I am of British-Scandinavian descent, so too much sun time = consider the lobster, I am a vegetarian, I like to hike. Beyond what to do when on the islands, the real question is what to do while on the boat.

I'm sure I will have a good time no matter what, but let's make it the best time ever. Yes!
posted by palindromic to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm an anthropologist in training.

Well, there's your answer for downtime on the boat. People watch!
posted by ocherdraco at 7:09 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bring some heavy-duty books. World History, Goedel Escher Bach, Walden.
posted by notsnot at 7:26 AM on January 23, 2009

Keep an illustrated travel journal - think of it as fieldwork. You might want to draw the plants you see on your hikes, the strange drinks your party dudes are drinking, etc. (Check out Danny Gregory's books, particularly Everyday Matters or The Creative Life, for example.)
posted by catlet at 7:30 AM on January 23, 2009

We need some compromising in the name of togetherness here. Go shopping with the wimmin, sport-watching with the dudes, and then they need to go eco-touristing or museuming with you. (All the places you mention have at least some eco-tourist or cultural type stuff from snorkeling to pyramids.) My guess, since it sounds like a pretty tight and loving bunch, is that everyone will have a good time.

Also, if you've never done a Carib vacation, don't close your mind. I've never done a cruise, which sounds like the first level of hell to me, but I did finally have to participate in a beach vacation once and it was surprisingly fun to do nothing but lie on beaches (slathered in #100 sunblock, for the same reasons as you), look at exotic plants and fake-bargain in tourist traps all day.

My son just finished a gig working on a cruise ship; you might want to check their internet policies. His ship charged by bandwidth. So you might have to be prepared either to go cold turkey or to pay a lot to be online, if that's your thing.
posted by nax at 7:31 AM on January 23, 2009

Best answer: Get some books beforehand about the history of the islands you'll be visiting. Something I like to do when I travel somewhere with 'nature' is get a guide book that has the names of the local plants and animals. (I don't know if that's up your alley at all, but I know I'm overeducated snobby pants, and really enjoy knowing what I'm looking at.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:32 AM on January 23, 2009

My suggestion would be to bring a bagful of books you've been excited to read, a full iPod, and maybe a craft. Have you considered taking up something highly portable and totally addictive like knitting or crocheting? If you don't swing that way, you could also get some "creative project" satisfaction (and potentially fascinating anthropological fodder) out of bringing a camera and documenting the trip, both as it relates to activities within your own family and general cruise ship goings-on.

My other suggestion (and I mean this as non-snarkily as possible) would be to cut loose, refrain from taking yourself seriously, and enjoy the trip for what it is--an opportunity to kick back and spend time with people you care about. Even if those people happen to be different from you.
posted by teamparka at 7:33 AM on January 23, 2009

Since you already allude to DFW, maybe bring a copy of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments"?
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:38 AM on January 23, 2009

First, given that you name checked Consider the Lobster, you should certainly read the DFW essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again in its eponymous book if you haven't already.

Second, cruise ships are traveling cities. You'll have ample time and space to get the heck away from all of your lovely traveling companions and do something on your own--spa time, getting on the climbing wall, sitting in your stateroom and reading Coming of Age in Samoa and Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, whatever you would like. You don't have to deal with the people whose preferred activities you disdain if you don't want to.

I'm an anthropologist in training.

Sucker. /ex-anthropologist-in-training

posted by The Michael The at 7:39 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

One of the advantages of cruises as a way of traveling with the family is that you're in a different place frequently and there's sort of a divide between shipboard time and shore time.

Unless your family is a 'you must all do something together at all times' group, in which case, everyone will probably be unhappy half the time, it's possible to spend time together at meal times, and do the occasional shore excursion together, but otherwise rarely run across each other on the giant boat.

You'll get an itinerary full of stuff to do every day on the boat, but many of those things will be slightly lame. Pick one or two specific things and agree to meet a family member for them, and then plan to do other things during stuff that doesn't at all interest you.

But on the other hand, it's a big boat, and there's lots of room to do your own thing. So bring books and relax and read -- there are myriad places you can do this and many of them will be quite quiet most of the time. Spend some time in the gym or take fitness classes -- this'll help you avoid gaining 5lbs a week, too, which is nice. Sometimes there'll be classes on actual things of interest -- photography, wine tasting, etc -- offered as a series on at-sea day. Signing up for those gives you several hours of excuses to stay away from the family.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:47 AM on January 23, 2009

Best answer: If you do need time away from your family and the rest of the passengers, and if you're not having your own cabin, every cruise ship I've ever been on (several as a kid, one as a grownup) had some place where it seemed like the rest of the passengers never went. On one it was a tiny bar at the back of the ship that nobody ever went in during the day. On another it was a beautiful corridor that ran between the casino and the kids activity centers (yet insulated from both). It had comfy wicker chairs and huge windows to watch the ocean go by. It was literally always empty - the casino folks had no interest in going towards the kidzone, and the parents took their kids another way as they didn't want to go through the casino. A good book and my iPod and I could stay there very happily for hours.

But, as others have said - there is a lot to do on the ship when not in port ... gym / spa / library / movies / lectures about the ports you'll be visiting. Some of the folks you will be travelling with will want to do some of that stuff with you.
posted by valleys at 7:52 AM on January 23, 2009

Best answer: Bring a good field guide and some binos and learn your gulls and terns!

I can almost guarantee that this will be such an exercise in frustration that shopping/partying will sound fantastic.

For shore trips, see if you can arrange for a private bird/naturalist guide - depending on where you'll be going, this does not have to be very expensive. And if you meet some like-minded folks on board, they can perhaps join you.
posted by rtha at 7:54 AM on January 23, 2009

I concur with rtha, on all counts. Gulls and terns are a PITA to ID. However, you may be able to get some pelagic birds while out at sea.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:11 AM on January 23, 2009

Dedicate yourself to discovering something new and interesting about each one of your family members.
posted by Aquaman at 8:14 AM on January 23, 2009

Try something new; since you provided a list of the places you are going, I would suggest SCUBA diving. Grand Cayman is quite good, but if this is the ship cruise it only pulls up for a couple of hours which is a bummer. Stingray Alley is a great experience and is only 30 feet of water. You probably can take a course or two in the ship's pool (or go nuts and start taking classes now.)

If this is the type of cruise where you will have enough time to buy tshirts and not SCUBA then maybe photography - take pictures, and would be something your dad would love.

posted by fluffycreature at 8:20 AM on January 23, 2009

Best answer: I just did that exact itinerary last August with my family. My family dynamics are much different than yours, but I understand... believe me. I too am very fair skinned and overeducated compared to the rest of my family, but other than that, thats where the similarities end. But overall, family issues aside, I had an awesome time.

Ochos Rios -- meh. The low part of the itinerary, IMHO, mainly because the locals are extremely pushy about getting you to give them money for crap. Very very touristy. The waterfall there however (that everybody goes to, you can't miss it) is amazing though. If you can convince anyone to go with you (or even if you can't), do the tour where they have you walk UP the falls (in the water!) as a group. I wish I had. I looked like a blast. It's mostly shady, so you should be fine with just a liberal amount of sunscreen.

As for the other places, the best luck we had was escaping all the pre planned tours, and just grabbing a cab and getting the cabby to give us a tour outside the touristy spots. In Cozumel, we got the other side of the island where the tourists don't go, where the government gave up trying to keep it powered in the 80s because the hurricanes kept ripping out the wires, and where the beaches were closed for the turtles. In Grand Cayman, the cab driver gave us his take on the financial aspect of the Caymans, which was considerably different than what I was expecting -- I loved listening his point of view as a local.

CruiseCritic and their forum are your friends. Read up on the ports of call, learn about your boat, and generally, just get excited about the whole experience.

Are you guys lucky enough to have balcony rooms? If so, the best part for me was simply relaxing on the balcony with a drink, watching the water, and reading my book. It was then I was honestly and truly relaxed. You could replicate the experience on a quiet corner of the ship, however. It'll be a big boat, there will be places to escape.

There are usually scheduled events to do during the day, but to be honest I found them all really lame. People watching is entertaining though. I could easily kill good chucks of the afternoon devouring all-you-can-eat ice cream outside in the shade and laughing at the stupid things people do on cruises. Generally however, the days at sea will be very very laid back, and will revolve around food. And alcohol, if you're into that.

Go to the shows in the evening, they're not completely horrible. Comedians are usually pretty good; the Broadway-type shows were watchable but really kind of subpar and at times reminded me of my high school productions.

And finally -- have an awesome time! And if for some reason the airline loses your luggage, try your very best to just relax... deep breaths... they got ours back just in time before the boat left, so they should be able to get yours as well :D
posted by cgg at 8:21 AM on January 23, 2009

My wife and I had a great time tooling around Cozumel on a scooter about 12 years ago. Like cgg said, head due east to the other side to get away from things (but I doubt if you'd have time to circle the island). It might be fun to get the whole group of you on them, like a biker gang, then you could split up and meet back at the boat later.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:35 AM on January 23, 2009

Been in your position. no desire to cruise but offered free cruise. It really is fun. The ships are usually beautiful and so big it is hard to imagine until you pull up and see it. You can steer clear of the drunk fest if you like. Find a spot you love - as others said those things are huge and parts stay relatively empty. We found a spot on the rear of the ship overlooking the wake and camped out there every day. Get up early and spend the early hours in a deck chair. Find a spot in the shade for later - many of the lower decks of the ship we were on were shaded and had chairs on them if nothing else. And do something out of character - we took a line dancing class. I hate line dancing. It was fun though and exercise and worth it to hear the English teacher explaining how real cowboys do this in her accent. Esp since i am from oklahoma and well, pretty sure she wouldn't know a real cowboy if he slapped her on the ass. is useful for excursions that are not cruise sanctioned. usually cheaper and less cattle call. be warned many of these folks are seasoned cruisers and love the whole dress up meet the captain thing, but they do have good advice on many things. we found a horse riding excurison through them that was way cheaper and way more off the beaten path than the ones offered by the cruise line. I would think Cozumel and the Caymans would both have some nature preserves you could find a way to get to if you really wanted to. search the internet ahead of time for these things.
posted by domino at 8:38 AM on January 23, 2009

Don't call him an ex-Marine to his face unless you want the "Once a Marine, always a Marine" lecture.
posted by brassafrax at 8:50 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I did the thing where I read the "Supposedly Fun Thing" cruise essay while on a (SO's) family-instigated cruise. In retrospect I'm not sure it was really helpful for my attitude given that I was already ambivalent about the whole thing.

Definitely load up on good reading. The nice thing about this setup is that since you're all on the same boat you don't necessarily actually have to be in close proximity the whole time, and yet it still feels like good together time.
posted by yarrow at 9:07 AM on January 23, 2009

Brassafrax is right. Your brother-in-law is a Marine, not an ex-Marine.

There's no such thing as an "ex-Marine".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:15 AM on January 23, 2009

Remember that there will be other people on the boat with whom you can mingle, and probably scheduled activities. My first impression of your question was that it was going to be just your family on a small boat for a week. Now *that* could be hairy. This way you have the option of spending time with your family, or, if that's not working, hanging out with the other passengers. And yes, take books, do research, and in general shore up your inner resources so you have a third option for things to do.
posted by orange swan at 9:44 AM on January 23, 2009

Birds and hiking sound like a combination an ex-Marine might be able to be roped into - hitting a trail while ashore and sneaking up on some rare varietes.
posted by rodgerd at 9:50 AM on January 23, 2009

Everyone has good suggestions. I am also compelled to remind you that this scenario is precisely the reason that alcohol was invented.
posted by gnutron at 9:51 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some points:

Just FYI, my brother-in-law does not particularly go for the whole 'Marines for Life!' mentality. Apparently, having a job that consists of picking up dead bodies from the sand and being stop-lossed twice will do that to a man.

The pelagic thing - man, terns and gulls drive me crazy during the summer here, so I am already emotionally prepared. (I did three months of IDing plovers, sandpipers, phalaropes, and the like, so I have the patience, I have the power!) My body does not particularly well handle drinking every single day, so that's why I need some other things to do. I'm a terrible knitter, so I suppose this would be a good time to improve.

Thank you, everyone, for your suggestions, and keep them coming
posted by palindromic at 10:37 AM on January 23, 2009

Best answer: I love the cruise ship experience; so much so that as far as I'm concerned, they could keep the ship at the dock for a week and I'd still love it.

Cruises are great opportunities to develop some new interests. I never would have attended an art auction on land, but the daily ones that have been part of every cruise I've even been on have been fun and interesting. There's frequently free champagne or wine, too.

Simply walking around the ship is great exercise, and there are plenty of spots to sit or lounge and read which aren't necessarily in direct sunlight, if that's a consideration.

There are frequently some interesting seminars or group chats scheduled. One of the entertainers on our last cruise owned a coffee company, and gave a presentation on the best way in the world to make coffee as well as other neat coffee related stuff.

Crusie ship crew, staff, and performers, are very accessible and seem to really enjoy talking to the passengers. I had a great elevator ride once with Jim Nabors, and my son, 17 at the time, was seriously hit on by the 40ish Judy Garland imitator on another cruise.

Also, to reiterate what others have said, it is not at all hard to lose yourself on a cruise ship of any size.

...and, going into the Carlos 'n Charlie's in Cozumel at 10:30 in the morning was one of the more bizarre and interesting experiences I've ever had.
posted by imjustsaying at 10:40 AM on January 23, 2009

Bring cards and some games and have a family tournaments. You like these people, so make a way to spend time with them where everybody can have fun.
posted by theora55 at 12:29 PM on January 23, 2009

Any reading list should include Robert Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica and Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Travellers Tree. In deference to local cultural customs develop a taste for rum.
posted by Dr.Pill at 1:29 PM on January 23, 2009

I LOVED not having to be with my party 24-7 on a cruise. That may be the best part of cruising.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:28 PM on January 23, 2009

This will sound stark and less fun than the other answers, but imagine not being able to spend time with your family again, and then treat this trip like your last chance. Really try to feel it. Focus on being with them. The setting and activities are incidental - it's the interaction and relationships that matter. Make yourself available to them on the boat. Soak up the great things about them and revel in it. Show love and let them love you. Carpe the diem, be here now, all that good stuff. I would suggest not trying to do things on the boat that shut you off from them, like reading by yourself or wandering around all day by yourself trying to make it an anthropological field study, even though those things would be interesting.

I'm older than you, so you may not have run into this yet, but I recently became acutely aware of my parents' mortality. They won't be here forever. They've never seemed old to me until now and now it has finally started. They're entering the years where people have health problems and die. Ever since that realization, I committed to spending as much quality time with them as possible going forward, and that spilled over to doing the same with my brother, and now my friends. We only have a finite amount of time left, and who knows how much that will be for any of us? I spent my childhood being a child, my teens being rebellious and cool and rejecting, and my 20s off trying to do my own thing and get my own stuff started, kind of leaving my family behind. And now I've moved away from them for work. I wish I had all that time back to do over and to spend quality time with them and love and appreciate them actively.

I used to be the adult son that didn't want to do things like cruises or family vacations. I skipped two big ones, one of them a cruise. I don't like the formulaic touristy stuff (oh, the malaise!) and didn't want to be cooped up with them long enough for all the little intrafamily annoyances to crop up and wear on me. Now I'll take any opportunity to be with them, I'll do whatever activity is going on, I don't focus on what kinds of activities I do or don't prefer, and I don't sweat any of the stupid small family stuff. I just let myself be with them and be fully present, regardless of what we're doing. I ask them things about themselves and their lives and thoughts that I've never asked in our traditional parent-child relationship. I try to get to know them even better. I reminisce and laugh and let them know I love them.

You can only appreciate something like that when you truly have the realization for yourself, but maybe you can absorb a whiff of this on faith, as credit given to you by your future, wiser self, who wishes she'd seen the bigger picture sooner (I can't know what you currently know and I won't assume - this is just in case). It doesn't have to be the main thing you think about on your trip, but maybe you can add it into the mix.

One piece of non-heavy advice would be that it could be fun to invite the group to join you on a walk/hike that you lead at one of your destinations, since you like to hike. If you read up ahead of time as the person upthread suggested, you could even add a scavenger hunt aspect to it, such as "find this plant" or "spot that bird". The winner gets a special drink back at the bar or a special frou frou from the shops. I bet they'd see it as a pleasant and fun thing and a special bit of you-ness. There's no reason you can't shape the trip some instead of it shaping you.

Bon voyage!
posted by kookoobirdz at 1:37 PM on January 25, 2009

Best answer: I did this.

I did the same itinerary under the same conditions, hating the very idea of it all, and even took the same David Foster Wallace book. Which I admit I read ostentatiously on my deck chair the first day out.

This is what I hated about the cruise: it's a floating hotel full of the middle of the bell curve. Get ready for people with fanny packs and pastel crop pants. People smoked in the casino, and you pretty much had to walk through it to get anywhere. No matter where you went onboard, there was some bozo trying to sell you a picture of yourself. The shops on board sold disco gold chains by the inch. Everyone on board was either older than me, on their honeymoon, or there with their mommy and daddy.

This is what I liked: I was challenged to do something new and strange and interesting everywhere we stopped. I took SCUBA lessons. I fed wild stingrays with my bare hands. I met some sea turtles. I spent an entire afternoon bobbing in the warm water in a perfectly round, sandy bay. I dressed up for dinner. The food was great. I had room service breakfast. I took pictures of things.

Things that were interesting: the rapid and efficient get-off-it's-over at the end. It's like a plug was pulled and everyone and their luggage went down a drain.

Things I am glad I avoided: the shows, the casino, the $8 per minute internet, that damn waterfall.

My favourite moment was when I discovered that nobody went to the bow of the ship at night. It was so magically dark there I could see all the thousands of stars available from that slice of earth, and once my eyes adjusted, I counted ten or twelve other ships glowing at various distances, just like the one I was on, sailing through their endless circuit.

You will be a tiny tourist sparkle on the eternal diamond necklace of the Caribbean cruise ship industry. Take a hat.
posted by Sallyfur at 4:40 PM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just want to throw in a pitch for the shows. I've never been on a cruise (god forbid), but nax jr was in the band in those god-awful shows. Go to the show ONCE and make a point to stop and tell the musicians they were great and you really appreciate having them there. Because I promise you, they hate it too.
posted by nax at 6:30 AM on February 1, 2009

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